'Precious Lives': Documenting Stories Of Gun Violence And How It Affects The Youth

Dec 15, 2016
Originally published on December 15, 2016 5:36 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A reporting project out of Milwaukee, Wis., has spent the last two years documenting one problem - gun violence. The series is called Precious Lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: This is the story about...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I want to do it, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: OK, one, two.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: This is Precious Lives.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Stories about kids.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Teens, guns.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: Guns.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: And how we end the violence.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #8: Bye, bye.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #9: Because...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #10: Our lives are precious.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #11: Because we are precious.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #12: Because we are precious.

CORNISH: Among the 100 stories that are part of the series - how a basketball team coped with the death of a 13-year-old teammate and how a pediatric surgeon coped with losing a 13-month-old baby in the operating room. I spoke with two producers of the series, Emily Forman and Aisha Turner. Neither is originally from Milwaukee, and Turner said in some ways, that was a plus.

AISHA TURNER: We're able to have maybe a broader understanding and sort of, like - a sort of bird's-eye view of what's going on in Milwaukee. It's a really segregated city. And so as outsiders, we weren't necessarily coming in with those boundaries in mind. And so it made it really - it made it a lot easier I think to go across these, you know - Holton Street, which is, like, one major dividing line, or the highway and get into different parts of the city.

CORNISH: And Emily Forman, I understand one of those places for you was the court system, right?

EMILY FORMAN: Right. I decided to go to a sentencing hearing one day of Deandre Willie Wise. He had stolen a Porsche from a dealership that led to a high-speed chase with a police officer onto a playground where it all culminated in a shootout between the officer and Deandre Wise. And Deandre was shot in the leg. The police officer was grazed.

So what you're going to hear is Deandre Wise's personal statement to the judge right before he's about to receive a 33-year-long sentence.

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DEANDRE WILLIE WISE: I never intended to put decent people in harm's way. I reacted off total emotion in which in the end it felt as if no one could help me. It seemed (crying) - it just seemed like no - I worked so hard to get nowhere - really never thought I would fail the test of life mainly. Please, Judge, don't take my life from me. I really was an attentive parent and got sidetracked by all the bad that was happening to me and around me.

FORMAN: This is probably the first time that he's been evaluated by a professional as having some mental health-related issues, and it's the first time he's had the floor in that way. And then 30 seconds later, he's escorted out of the courtroom, and that's it - 33 years.

CORNISH: After telling, you know, a hundred of these stories, what's something that the two of you have learned? How has this changed the way you think about an issue like gun violence?

FORMAN: You can really see how violence clusters like an infectious disease. You can see it on a map. You can see that clustering that is really a product of conditions that people are living under. And you can see how it spreads. It might spread because, you know, someone's just lost their brother, and they don't feel like the justice system is going to serve them. So they take matters into their own hands.

But then if you're the 5-year-old girl that's sitting on your grandfather's lap and you happen to live next to someone who's the target of some argument, you're at risk. I mean it's almost heartening to think about it as an infectious disease because that means that there are interventions. So if you can identify the points of spread, you can interrupt that.

CORNISH: What was it like even trying to get people to talk to you, you know, people who feel maybe as though, like, a lot of times when they talk to reporters they're kind of getting blamed for being anywhere near a situation like this?

TURNER: This is Aisha. I struggle with that a lot. One of the things that we kind of constantly hear is, like, it's not what it's like in the news. And you know, as journalists, we have to take some responsibility (laughter) for the perception that's out there of this community. But at the same time, we're - one of the things that we're trying to do is really deepen the narrative around gun violence and get at those questions of why. And I think that helps to add depth and complexity.

And you also - we talk to people - we talked to one family, the Marshall (ph) family, who actually moved from the suburbs into the city and got a lot of pushback from their acquaintances who said, why would you want to go live with those people? And you know, they're telling us, you know, those statistics can feel really overblown when all you're looking at are the statistics.

What you're missing are the fact that, you know, we have Easter egg hunts every spring and that we have these community dinners every week. And you have a sense of being close-knit and looking out for each other. And I think that's one of the things that we've also found it important to show in the series and have that be a part of the dialogue around gun violence.

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CORNISH: That's Aisha Turner and Emily Forman, producers of the reporting project Precious Lives. Their 101st and final episode will be posted online next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.